4.2 – Youth mental health difficulties

MindMatters in Minutes. Youth Mental Health Difficulties.

When we talk about youth mental health difficulties we tend to think of big labels like anxiety or depression.

While these labels are useful from a clinical point of view, they can give you an impression that someone either does or does not have a mental health issue, in the same way that you either do or do not have a vampire bat, but the reality is there is a continuum of mental health experience — at one end you have good mental health, at the other end you have poor mental health, and then we have a whole range of experiences in between.

You might be sad because you’ve just broken up with a boyfriend or girlfriend, or you might be worried about how people judge you at school, or you might just be frustrated with your schoolwork. Most of these thoughts and feelings are just a part of everyday life, especially for adolescents, but if they pile up, or become more serious, a young person can begin to develop a mental health difficulty.

When we say mental health difficulty we mean any state where a person suffers ongoing distress or impaired functioning, whether that is mild or severe.

Within difficulties you have recognised disorders, which can be more severe or more persistent, but unless you are a mental health professional  you don’t really need to worry about making this distinction.

It’s more important to recognise that nobody occupies a fixed position within the continuum. . Our mental health is influenced by a combination of biological, psychological and social factors, and changes in any of these areas can cause your mental health to improve or deteriorate.     

This movement is happening to all of us all the time. So when we see statistics like 20% of students have mental health difficulties, or 5% have been diagnosed with specific disorders, it’s not always the same 20% or 5% from month to month or year to year.

So given this dynamic, complex situation, what are school staff supposed to do? Keep it simple! The best thing is not to get hung up on labels and diagnoses, but think more broadly about mental health and functioning, and recognise that in any school population you will have students spread throughout the continuum, from those with good mental health, to those struggling with mild or severe difficulties.

Knowing this, the challenge is to find ways you can keep all your students engaged in school, no matter where they are on the continuum.

So think about how your school anticipates the full spectrum of mental health. What could you put in place to prevent issues emerging amongst your healthiest students? And what could you do to support students struggling with difficulties, whether mild or severe, so that they stay engaged in school?